What is Work? Finding Your True Career in Life's Second Act

08/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

There are no second acts in American lives, the tragic ol' F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation goes.

Cut your whining! The new careerists say, for a very good reason.

Seconds acts are ours for the making. And it's never too late to start your re-starting.

This concept was brought home to me as I chatted with John Sherman III -- a man whose professional story embodies the "yes, we can!" principle of positive second pro-act-ion.

Today, John is working as a Senior Fellow at The Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He's helping to write a 21st-century rule-book -- or more precisely, a wiki of common grounds for corporations seeking to positively resolve humans/environmental-rights disputes with other humans.

This kind of work -- or an earlier version it -- would have worked for the post-collegiate John Sherman as well.

He was an English major at Dartmouth in 1968 -- a time when corporate and individual pursuits were raising huge questions, and answers were at a premium. He opposed the Vietnam war, but didn't consider himself "political." Mediation and remediation spoke to his personal passions.

So how was it, that John Sherman, caring human, ended up working as a corporate litigator, defending Big Biz types against aggrieved little guys?

As we've noted earlier in this series, our search for the "perfect" career path is subject to a psychological concept called the "pull to equilibrium." The pull, which is rooted in a caveman/woman-ish desire to avoid the stress of "fight or flight" adrenaline surges, tries to keep us on life's well-trod paths of safety.

The young John Sherman had ideas and ideas. He also had a family to support. Their safety trumped his professional passion at first. And that led him the safety of a career in the law. But safety didn't equal satisfaction, per se.

"I had to put under a bushel a lot of the light I had when I graduated law school," John said by phone, from Massachusetts. "I needed a job. "Joining a law firm was a safe thing to do."

The urge to change is clear in his voice as he describes his early days in his first career. Were personal passion the only thing at stake, as one might assume, his second act was on tap.

The shift took 40 years.

John went from his law firm job to litigating for a utility. His professional purpose was to help his employer triumph over folks who didn't want a power line in their backyard, for example.

He was good at his job. But the more he looked at the things, the more he saw possibilities that weren't part of his formal job description.

"As a litigator, you like the combat. But you start to see things. 'Couldn't this problem be avoided?'"

When it came to drawing power lines, he noticed, the utility's engineers wanted to draw the straightest possible line between towers. It was the most direct thing to do. And it seemed the least expensive thing to do. Which made it the best thing to do! Right?

Well, not really, John realized over time. The people who lived along the engineer's "affordable" lines would bear a huge cost when the new lines impacted their homes and ways of living. The "thoughtless" power company responsible for the lines would become their natural adversary.

Disputes took time and cost money on all sides. They raised stress levels and created an adversarial relationship.

If, however, the utility invited the public to meet with the engineers at the planning stage of a project, collaboration and mutuality could replace adversity. There would be no need to fight - the Latinate root of "to litigate". The benefits of corporate and community goodwill would be long-lasting. And John discovered, he would benefit personally.

"It appealed to the part of me that said there is a better way of doing things," he told me.

He could have continued this way, doing very good things in an industry that wasn't known for its natural goodness. But then, the wheel turned again. In 2008, John was offered a buy-out.

He wasn't sure where he was headed. But he knew some folks at the Kennedy School who were working on CSR issues.

He'd gone through some professional retraining. His Meyer-Briggs professional personality assessment test told him he'd changed personally, too. He was less of a fighter, and more of a mellow guy - a helper.

And so, "I asked if there was something I could to do help."

The rest is history -- in the present sense. John is doing work he loves, which is designed to help others.

On a larger larger his work to find work that works for him offers a useful metaphor to others struggling to work in ways that matter to us, personally.

"Disputes have the ability to generate possibility," John says. "You can transform the relationship.

"In some ways, I've reconnected with my original goals. In other ways, I've become a different person.

"This is a big change. But it's the not the only change I'm going to be subjected to."

And isn't that what great second -- and third -- acts are all about?

Thanks to Mary Westropp for introducing me to the work of the New Directions career advisory center, and to John Sherman in particular.